I can tell you up front that this is not going to be a popular review with many of you. Why? Well, for one, unlike many of the people who gravitate to Pajiba, I don’t actually wet my pants at the prospect of seeing a sex-starved, mostly naked Christina Ricci writhe around on the ground jonesing for cock like an evangelist on sabbatical from his heterosexuality. I mean, come the fuck on. If I had known that all it took to get a movie financed and distributed was to hire an alabaster starlet with body dysmorphic disorder and a forehead that looks like an infant crowning and then throw her in a pair of Daisy Dukes and ask her to thrash about like a goddamn wolf in heat, then I’d be motherfucking Steven Spielberg, now wouldn’t I?
Because if you throw in some archaic racial stereotypes, a severely fucked-up view of the South, and the unholy miscasting of Justin Timberlake, that’s just about what Black Snake Moan amounts to. Add a director — Craig Brewer — with sudden, unearned legitimacy thanks to a film (Hustle and Flow) that Terrence Howard single-handedly saved in spite of Brewer’s worst efforts, and you’ve got yourself a film that, inexplicably, allows hipsters and so-called sophisticated film lovers to watch a skin-flick guilt free, assured in the knowledge that it was made by a respectable artist. Well, fuck that. If you manage to convince yourself that Black Snake Moan is anything other than the outgrowth of an adolescent boy’s desperate wish to have a ready-and-willing vagina chained to his radiator, then you’re deluding yourself. And if you can admit that the only reason you’d see this flick is to add to your arsenal of masturbation fantasies — well, maybe I can respect your honesty (even if you’re a sick bastard for getting off on a character with a history of violent sexual abuse). But anyone who suggests — as many older, white male critics are already doing — that Black Snake Moan is either “art” or “an original slice of the American experience” (where the fuck do you live, asshole?), is a sad, sad little man who mistakes his tiny erection for an epiphanic experience.
Lookit: I can appreciate a good exploitation flick, the best of which serve a higher purpose by sensationalizing sex, drugs, or violence to expose an underlying problem (Dawn of the Dead), irreverently satirize conservative values (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!), mock ridiculous racial caricatures (Shaft) or, simply, to show off your superhuman hipness (Kill Bill, presumably Grindhouse). But if you’re not going to attempt to serve that higher purpose, you’re going to have to offer something a lot cooler than this Tarantino-hackery, which is exceptional only for its indolence. If Brewer actually meant for Black Snake Moan to be confrontational, or intended to use his offensiveness to challenge the audience’s sensibilities, he would’ve needed to add hell of a lot more substance behind his dumbass conceit: A poor Southern black man (named Lazarus, for Chrissake) who saves a woman from her own nymphomania by chaining her up, feeding her steak, and playing her the blues, as if to say, “That’ll save the bitch.”
The plot, such as it is, involves the po’ trailer trashin’ Rae (Ricci), whose meek and troubled fiancé, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake — and man is he awful) is about to abandon her for boot camp, leaving Rae and her “disease” alone. That disease being an insanely irrational need to have a dick, preferably black (for obvious, stereotypical reasons), in her immediate presence at all times, lest she succumb to rabid, foam-at-the-mouth Linda-Blair tremors that only an orgasm (preferably from abusive strangers) can remedy. So, within hours after her man has left her, Rae heads out seeking some of that sexual abuse she so craves, finding it — after a drug-fueled party — in the form of Ronnie’s best friend (Michael Raymond James), who takes her out in the middle of nowhere, beats the shit out of her, and leaves her on the side of the road for dead.
But, no! She doesn’t die — what kind of moral lesson would that teach us, the viewers? Instead, Lazarus (Sam Jackson) rises from the dead (or, you know, his shack of a home) and rides in on his white steed (here played by a tractor) and picks that poor troubled girl off the road and takes her in, where she’s safe from those mean, mean fellas who would seek to despoil her wilting flower. And how better to keep a woman safe from her own wicked ways than by chaining her up in your goddamn house?
Now, to be fair, had Lazarus not shackled Rae to his heater (forced air, I believe), she probably would’ve just gone right back out and got herself beaten and raped again. So he did what any well-meaning Southern man with a fear of God and a keen sense of hospitality would do, and — as if to excuse his generosity — he even went out and bought that poor little anti-heroine a nice summer dress, bless his little heart. After all, if you’re going to chain up a Southern white woman, you ought to buy her a nice outfit as a way of keeping yourself out of the doghouse. ‘Cause that’s all it takes, apparently.
And you know what? I hear that the chain is some sort of metaphor. But a metaphor for what, exactly? Or is Brewer using the premise to call attention to the role reversal here — the irony that, instead of being a black man chained up, it’s a black man shackling a white woman out of the kindness of his own heart? Hey! That’s hilarious. And to really drive home the point, let’s make sure that the white woman is wearing a thong and a breast-hugging midriff. Frederick Douglass would be proud.
Eventually, Lazarus does cure her of that horrible, ravenous need for sex, through the use of a few home-cooked meals, a couple of blues songs, some scripture, and a drawn-out, laughably contrived confrontation with Mr. Sexy Whatsit, which just made Black Snake Moan all the more ridiculous for forsaking the so-called exploitive nature of the film in the last few minutes in favor of a dumbass Hollywood feel-good ending. And the writing and the acting: Good God, it’s awful — overcooked, overheated, overdone, overwhatever; stick a goddamn fork in it and toss it in a trashcan with the charred remains of Ricci’s acting career.
Honestly, the whole Craig Brewer thing reminds me of Larry Clark, who brought us the “harrowing” emotional sucker-punch of Kids before revealing to the rest of the world just exactly what he is: a B-level hack with a lurid fascination with teen porn (see Teenage Caveman) that we all mistook for something deep and profound in the context of adolescents sport-fucking one another and spreading AIDS on grainy film stock. Likewise, I see Hustle and Flow in a completely different context now — a beautifully shot bad film that was lucky enough to have Terrence Howard along to actually humanize the plight of a down-on-his-luck pimp. Otherwise, it was just formulaic, misogynistic poverty-porn.
But aside from Brewer’s feeble attempts in Black Snake Moan to pass off soft-core Ricci-porn as film, it was his treatment of the South that irked me most. Can we give the fucking Southern Gothic myth a rest, already? Seriously, Black Snake Moan isn’t a period piece, one that depends on some historical context to make its point like, say, The Color Purple. This is a contemporary film, set in the present day. So why, pray tell, does Brewer insist on dragging out every Southern cliché in the book: barefoot women, shitty trailer homes, shacks, steamy backwoods atmosphere, hillbilly fuckers, and an outdated, bastardized view of the co-existence of sex and religion. Jump. Up. My. Ass. Basically, what Brewer is doing by reintroducing the Southern Gothic myth here is giving himself permission to wax poetic about a period in American history characterized by segregation and bigotry and then, as if to excuse it, offering up his own personal Southern credentials as a way of saying, “Hey! It’s OK. I can talk shit about the South because I’m a Southerner.” That’s fine, Craig. All of us Southerners do, but if you’re going to make a contemporary film, then at least criticize the modern South and not, as you’ve done here, continue to perpetuate an antiquated view of it.
After all, Southerners haven’t chained up women and saved them with Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” and collard greens in at least a decade now, you dumb shit.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.The Newest Subgenre of Adult Film: Ricci Porn
Film | March 5, 2007 | Comments ()